One Man's Strange Path from N.Y. Jew to Hindu Honcho

Founder of Indian Devotional Fest Was Former AEPi President

Performers and yogis gather at the annual Shakti Fest in California organized by a former AEPi president,
JTA
Performers and yogis gather at the annual Shakti Fest in California organized by a former AEPi president,

By JTA

Published May 24, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

In 1968, only six years after founding the AEPi chapter at his Long Island University campus, Steven Silberfein took one of the thousand names of the Hindu god Vishnu and became Sridhar Silberfein.

A year later, the one-time Jewish fraternity brother escorted the Hindu teacher Swami Satchidananda to the stage at Woodstock to deliver an invocation in front of 500,000 flower children.

Surveying the crowd, Silberfein turned to the cotton-bearded swami and said, “Wouldn’t it be nice to get all these people chanting the names of God?”

“Forty years later we did that at Bhakti Fest,” said Silberfein, 73, referring to the Indian devotional music festival he founded in 2009.

Mounted twice a year in Joshua Tree, Calif., and now once a year in Madison, Wis., Bhakti Fest has become a fixture of the West Coast festival circuit.The May festival known as Shakti Fest, in honor of Hinduism’s divine feminine force, brought more than 1,500 yogis to the Mojave Desert last week for three days of chanting, breath work, yoga and a more-than-healthy dose of kale seaweed salad.

Steven Silberfein, a one time AEPi president is now the a Hindu honcho.
JTA
Steven Silberfein, a one time AEPi president is now the a Hindu honcho.

As blissed-out Californians floated around sipping coconut water and Vitamineral Green superfood, Silberfein, who has turned the festival’s operations over to his oldest daughter, Mukti Silberfein, schmoozed with artists with names like Durga Das and Arjun Baba.

Attended to by a bevy of young female assistants, Silberfein could easily be mistaken for a celebrity guru, though that’s exactly the impression he’d like to avoid.

“I’m just a regular guy,” said Silberfein, sitting in his air-conditioned RV. “I still bow down to the feet of people. I’m still scrubbing floors.”

Jews have long turned to Eastern philosophy to plug holes in their spiritual lives. Jewish Buddhists, or Jew-Bus, are perhaps the best-known example, brought to widespread attention in the best-selling “The Jew in the Lotus,” Roger Kamenetz’s 1994 account of a dialogue between rabbis and the Dalai Lama.

Less attention has been devoted to the phenomenon of Hin-Jews, who populate the ranks of America’s yogic elite in disproportionately large numbers. In addition to Silberfein and Ram Dass, who experimented with LSD at Harvard with Timothy Leary and is now revered as a master spiritual teacher, the biggest Western stars of the Indian call-and-response style of chanting known as kirtan are both New York-born Jews.

Silberfein credits his Austrian-Jewish mother with teaching him how to cook and clean, as well as the value of service. Growing up on New York’s suburban Long Island, Silberfein’s mother would take in Polish and Jamaican immigrant women and train them to clean houses, he recalled. “It was a form of seva, of service,” he said, “but she didn’t equate that.”

To his mother’s dismay, Silberfein took that service ethic and applied it to his gurus, or Hindu spiritual teachers. His first was Swami Muktananda, a charismatic teacher whom Silberfein met while studying with Rudi, a Brooklyn-born Jew who in the early 1960s taught a form of eye-gazing meditation out of a storefront in Greenwich Village.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.